update: I always leave out a crucial detail. The first question this post generated was: “What was the outcome?” The answer is: It’s not resolved yet! Whittier is considering the bids right now, and has promised an answer by next Wednesday, 8/22.
Over the past few months I have been working on a bid to acquire a big pile of aerial photographs of Southern California created between 1927 and 1965ish. A small private college outside of LA did away with its geology department a number of years ago and their airphoto collection was closed to the public right about the time I moved to UC Surf Board in early 2010. This was a super interesting experience because so far in my career people have simply called me up and said ‘we hear you collect old photos. Please come collect ours.’ This is the first time I’ve ever seen a college or a government agency attempt to sell theirs, so I thought I would detail the process.
I have been quiet so far because, frankly, I didn’t want to run up the bidding. But in the end I know that there is a big fat commercial bidder who has deep pockets who will probably offer the most money. Our ‘final and best offers’ were due at 5pm, so there’s no danger of this blog post causing Google or some eccentric millionaire to sweep in at the last minute with a higher bid. And if they did, so be it, but that would mean that Whittier (the heretofore undisclosed small college) didn’t follow its own bidding procedures.
So I know I most likely won’t have offered the most money. But I did raise what I could and I received great support from my boss, who I believe offered as much money as this institution can in good conscience offer a private school. After all, we’re not in the business of raising funds for others–we have a hard enough time raising money for ourselves. I also convinced a couple people to write really nice notes in support of my bid.
My bid. See: it’s hard to separate my self from this. It’s my collection. I decide what we buy, what we keep, and what we throw away. When I first started this blog I was at the complete bottom of the food chain, but 10 years post-MLS I have really internalized being a person who runs a map, data, and aerial photograph collection. So, dear reader, you really have to take this story as my point of view and understand that it’s not at all neutral. When I say that UCSB is the best place for these photographs…:
…what I’m really saying is that I am the best person to take care of them.
So in my (most likely not the highest) bid, I appealed to the public interest. I talked about how I provide free scanning to students and researchers at all ten UC campuses. I talked about how Whittier didn’t pay any money for these images, but I didn’t chastise them for attempting to sell them. And I spoke about what it will take (lots of time and not an insignificant amount of money) to get them from LA to Santa Barbara and how we will integrate them into our existing collections. Finally: I talked about the harm to the general public and to science if these images fall in to private hands.
And, before you get all high and mighty about how Jon frequently brags about the fact that he has a revenue stream in his library, I told Whittier about how I charge a fee to the general public–that’s how I can afford to offer free scanning to students and researchers and buy $30,000 per year of preservation supplies and student labor.
The photographs that we are talking about have traded hands a couple times already, and legend has it that a UCLA professor rescued the bulk of the material in 1965 after Fairchild sold his business to Aero Services, Inc. The web page that Whittier used to host says that three professors were given 24 hours to get the photos off of a loading dock in 1965. Whittier bragged that it got the largest share, and in 1984 they received all of the vertical imagery that UCLA had initially taken. That initial group of photos were divided between UCLA, CSU-Northridge, and Whittier College. Whittier has credited professor Beach Leighton (who founded a company that likely was a frequent customer of the collection when it was at Whittier). I wonder if Norman Thrower, who Stan Stevens thanks in this Catalog of Aerial Photos by Fairchild Aerial Surveys Inc Now in the Collections of the Department of Geography UCLA was another of the three? For that matter, who was the third?
My own library received a cache of photos in 1986 as a donation from Teledyne Geotronics, which is one of the successor corporations to Fairchild Aerial Surveys. At some later date I think UCSB took in most of what was at CSU-Northridge. We received similar gifts over the years from other companies who were going out of business and government agencies who were replacing older images with more recent ones. This is how my collection here grew, just like the one at the University of Oregon where I used to work.
Private industry created these images, but I think that the wealth that is to be gotten out of them was earned by their creator. Sherman Fairchild got very wealthy from his aerial survey company, and he went on to to make several more fortunes by becoming a founding father of silicon valley. But you know how the Governor Romney and President Obama were sparring recently over whether or not people create their wealth from scratch? Well, Fairchild was the son of a US congressman who was also a founder of IBM. Fairchild Aerial Surveys as a business was created after Sherman won a contract to build a better aerial camera. The wikipedia article says: “Fairchild and his father went to Washington and won a government contract.” He went on to found many more companies, many of which also received funding from the federal government. At one point, a Fairchild company design a camera used aboard the Apollo moon missions.
I’ve got photos from that too.
Fairchild is widely credited with enabling aerial photography as a science with his high-speed between-the-lens shutter. His efforts spawned an industry that continues today with companies like Pictometry and Sky Research who do everything from selling imagery to county tax assessors so that they can bust you for that un-permitted shed to detecting unexploded ordnance in order to protect civilians from the lingering effects of war.
So why am I telling you this? Well, maybe it’s because the collection includes iconic locations, such as this view of Manhattan from 1931:
Lower Manhattan 1931. image: NYPL.
The archive gets deeper. For example, there are construction photos of any number of famous landmarks, such as the George Washington Bridge:
Washington Bridge Approaches, New York. 1951. image: New Jersey State Archives
Most of the images at Whittier College are of a much more mundane quality: they are vertical images (as opposed to the oblique views above) and cover a lot of ground that is not particularly interesting when taken by themselves. The value of the imagery is in the comprehensive snapshop the collection would create, if it were to be combined with my own here at UCSB, of the development of Southern California.
So what’s the problem? The problem is that Whittier college is selling the collection and has a strong financial incentive to accept the highest bid. In this case, as I’ve said, the highest bid is likely going to come from a corporation who is going to lock the images up behind a big fat paywall. Where I am able to provide unlimited and cheap access to my collection, this corporation is going to add the content to its suite of services.
There’s two problems with this. First, as I just wrote, the images will be just one piece of a big suite of services. The market for historical aerial imagery (which is mainly to do environmental due diligence during real estate transactions) is tied up to all sorts of additional pieces of information (flood maps, city directories, title searching). It’s not easy for anyone looking for old air photos to figure out where or how to get them. Companies like EDR and the aforementioned Leighton Group probably don’t get many phone calls from property owners disputing a fence line.
Second, many of the researchers I deal with often don’t know that aerial photography will be useful until I tell them about it and show it to them. If I have to tell them: ‘oh, you can contact this commercial firm to purchase items that we don’t have,’ they are going to lose interest pretty quickly. Moreover, if I ask someone to come back tomorrow for something I need to retrieve from storage, a lot of the times they don’t come back. You might think that this isn’t the way that science gets done, but quite often researchers follow the path of least resistance.
It’s my job to make sure there’s no resistance when they are looking for information.
It’s also my job to collect things, organize them so that they are usable, and then make them accessible to my end-users. So while this post might be me personally advocating for something that will benefit me professionally, I think that’s ok. This whole thing has been a learning experience, and one lesson that has been reinforced is that no one is ever going to complain about me advocating for public access to information. I’m a librarian dammit. It’s what I do.